Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Slan By A.E. Van Vogt

“Why was he feared?... His name was Jommy Cross, and to all appearances he was human and harmless. But the Slan tendrils half-concealed in his hair identified him as a SLAN. And to the men who ruled the world, naturally all SLANS were freaks.

But Jommy believed that SLANS were not the monsters men claimed. And though still a child, and alone- and with only a secret weapon left to him by his father- he set out to find his fellow SLANS, and with them, to win a way to peace with men.”

Published 1946, originally a serial for Astounding Science Fiction beginning in 1940. 24c, 223 pages. I gave up trying to find out when my Dell reprint is from, since it doesn't say inside, but I would guess early 1950s.

Have you ever listened to a Beatles record and imagined that it just came out? Neither have I, nor have I been able to read work of fiction written half a century ago and been able to gauge its emotional impact in that day and age. Certain media just does not age well, and gold age sci-fi serials definitely fall into that category. Well, that isn't entirely true, as a certain few golden age stories were improved by their serial nature—keeping the readers interested from issue to issue demanded the storytelling be tight and the action constant. Unfortunately for SLAN, the story suffers from chapter to chapter and ends up being chaotic, confusing, and just plain ugly in novel format.

Right from the get-go, this story felt slapped together and hackneyed—the naming conventions of the protagonist Jommy and the main setting of Centropolis were enough to make me groan in the early pages. The middle of the book is fairly strong, but the ending feels stretched thin, probably in order to get a few more issues of action out to the Astounding Science Fiction fanbase. Several annoying twists and turns add little to the actual story’s suspense, but probably kept subscriptions up from late 40s teens.

I will attempt a synopsis here, although the SLAN wiki page has a succinct yet spoiler-ridden one for the world to see. The novel begins with Jommy and his mother on the run from a mob of humans who mindlessly fear the slan and kill them on site. Jommy's mother gives him a pep talk involving slan/human relations and sends him off to escape while she creates a diversion, and, inevitably, dies. Jommy escapes the crowd and authorities, but is then whacked on the head by a malevolent old lady who calls herself 'granny' in third person for the rest of the book.

Jommy ends up living with the old bag and uses his telepathic abilities to aid him in shoplifting goods so she can fence them and buy liquor. During the next six years Jommy somehow gets an education and conveniently some insight as well from his late father, who planted hypnotic thought seeds in his mind when he was a child. The thought seeds lead him to his father's hidden atomic ray gun, which uses “concentration rather than diffusion” to magically vaporize anything in its path. In each of the remaining fifteen chapters, Jommy uses his telepathic skills, atomizer, and a self-learned doctorate in rocket science to escape all the slan-hating factions of earth…over and over again.

I can envision someone popping open a 1940 issue of Astounding Science and thinking SLAN a groundbreaking, riveting story, but it just doesn't translate well in novel form or to a reader in 2010. The backdrops and dialogue are too reminiscent of a film being trashed by Mystery Science Theatre 3000 to be taken seriously, and Jommy's 'tragic' life plays out way too conveniently to be a good story vehicle.

I really wanted to like SLAN for all of its faults, but all the “old sci-fi” hype in the world can't save this overburdened mess. Though it does include lasers shot by sexy, tunic-wearing slan women, which is a definite plus.

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